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  Wikipedia: Cult

Wikipedia: Cult
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

This article discusses religious or sociological cults. See also: cult film, cult television, cult radio.

The literal and traditional meaning of the word cult, from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration", is "a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same." In French or Spanish, culte or culto simply means "worship"; an association cultuelle is an association whose goal is to organize worship (and is eligible for tax exemption). The word for "cult" is secte or secta. See false friend. In formal use, and in non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word "cult" are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a purpose to which "sect" is put in English. Hence, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are cults within Christianity. In English, it is still perfectly neutral to refer to the "cult of Artemis at Ephesus" and the "cult figures" that accompanied it, or to "the importance of the Ave Maria in the cult of the Virgin."

Since the 1960s, however, in English-speaking countries, especially in North America, most English speakers have adopted the term for general conversation in an explicitly pejorative sense, to denote groups, generally with religious themes, that purportedly exploit their members psychologically and financially using group-based persuasion techniques (sometimes called "mind control"). Unlike mainstream religious movements, cults are characterized by high levels of dependency and obedience to the cult's leadership, separation from family or the outside world, and infiltration of religion into nearly every aspect of daily life. Membership in a cult is usually temporary: 90% or more of cult members ultimately leave their group. [2,3]

The term cult has a technical meaning in the sociology of religions, referring to a religious group with novel beliefs and with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society. This meaning is purely neutral.

Definitions of a cult

There is no agreed-upon definition of what a cult is; however, there are several alternative formulations, including the following:

Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders [1]

Cult: A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control . . . designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. [7]

The problem with defining the word cult is that (1) purported cult members generally resist being called a cult, and (2) the word cult is often used to marginalize religious groups with which one does not agree or sympathize. Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as new religious movement in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because some religious movements are "new" but not necessarily cults, and some purported cults are not religious. Where a cult practices physical or mental abuse, psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. These are also common terms in the popular press. However, not all cults are abusive or destructive, and among those that psychologists believe are abusive, few members would agree that they are being abused.

Some groups, particularly those labeled by others as cults, view the designation as insensitive, and feel persecuted by what the call the "anti-cult movement", the existence of which is disputed.

For many scholars and professional commentators, the usage of the word "cult" applies to maleficent or abusive behavior, and not to a belief system. For members of competing religions, use of the word is pejorative and applies primarily to rival beliefs (see memes), and only incidentally to behavior. Regardless of its formal, proper, or "sensitive" definition, the de facto meaning of cult in popular usage since the 1960s is those small, close-knit groups with beliefs and practices that are bizzare and disturbing to the average person.

Historical Examples

Some examples of notorious purported cults whose adherents made bizarre history include the following:

Prevalence of purported cults

By one measure, between 3,000 and 5,000 purported cults existed in the United States in 1995. [5] While some of the more well-known and influential of these groups are frequently labelled as cults, the majority of these groups vigorously protest the label and refuse to be classified as such, and often expend great efforts in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the stigma of the term cult. For a list of groups frequently labelled as cults, see Purported cults.

Checklists of cult behavior

While the religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs vary widely from one cult to the next, many believe that the actions of cults are characteristally similar. Many popular checklists of "cult behavior" have been created, and sources differ in the terminology they use and how they group the behaviors together. [1,3,5] Some common behaviors on these checklists are as follows:

Additionally, many cults are described as having the following characteristics, though they are not as unique to cults as the behaviours listed above:

  • Authoritarianism -- Control of the organization stems from an absolute leader or a small circle of elite commanders. Often the cult's leadership is glorified with a vast personality cult. The leader may be recognized as divine, or even as God.
  • Secret doctrines - certain "secret" (esoteric) teachings that must not ever be revealed to the outside world
  • Promised Ones - members of the cult are encouraged to believe they were chosen, or made their choice to join the cult, because they are special or superior
  • Fire-and-Brimstone - leaving the cult, or failing at one's endeavor to complete the requirements to achieve its panacea, will result in consequences greater than if one had never joined the cult in the first place.
  • Shunning -- members who leave may not contact members who remain.
  • Mystical Manipulation Cults ascribe events to supernatural influences even where such influences do not exist. Examples of this are Sathya Sai Baba who has been proven to use sometimes sleight of hand to materialize objects. He claims that the materalizations of these objects are miracles. Another example is that of People's Temple leader Jim Jones who performed fake healings and fake surgery by using chicken blood. These fake miracles have a big indirect effect. The follower starts to see the miracles of the cult leader everywhere which will reinforce the follower's belief system.

While popular, the value of this kind of "checklist" in determining whether or not a group is a cult is debated by many sociologists. Moreover, some checklists have been designed so that particular marginalized groups (such as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses) will fall within them, though their status as a cult is debatable.

External Links

Note: The Internet offers a great deal of material beyond the following list:

See also


  • 1 William Chambers, Michael Langone, Arthur Dole & James Grice, "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A Measure of the Varieties of Cultic Abuse", Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 1994. The definition of a cult given above is based on a study of 308 former members of 101 groups.
  • 2 Barker E. "The Ones Who Got Away: People Who Attend Unification Church Workshops and Do Not Become Moonies". In: Barker E, ed. Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press; 1983.
  • 3 Galanter M. "Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group". Am J Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989.
  • 4 Enroth, Ronald. Churches that Abuse
  • 5 Singer, M with Lalich, J (1995). Cults in Our Midst, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • 6 Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. "Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?" Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91-111
  • 7 West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1985). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism, September 9–11. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.


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